Microsoft's new software partnerships: Separating impact from image

Microsoft has been busy forging new alliances with a variety of software vendors in recent months. But how much real substance is there in its latest partnerships?

Since Satya Nadella came onboard as Microsoft's CEO in February , there's been a lot of noise around the way the "new" Microsoft is more collaborative and cooperative than the former one.

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Some of the changes Microsoft is making are definitely praiseworthy. But some of the differences are more about image than anything else. And separating the two can be harder than one might think.

On October 6, Nadella was on stage at the Adobe Max conference to help drive home the message that the two competitors also could be "coopetitors." Microsoft provided Surface Pro 3 tablets and a one-year Office 365 subscription for all the attendees. Adobe announced some new tweaks to its Creative Cloud that would make its apps work better on touch devices, specifically Surfaces. Microsoft gets some love from creative professionals for the Surface; Adobe gets some nice giveaways for its conference attendees.

Adobe has been a leading Microsoft ISV partner for decades. Even when rumors swirled that Microsoft might try to buy all or part of Adobe, the two were still both partners and competitors. They still are.

Salesforce is another company with which Microsoft forged a new and shiny partnership earlier this year. The orchestrated announcement between the two impressed many.

Next week is Salesforce's Dreamforce conference. I'm sure we're going to hear more about the progress the two have made toward delivering on their multifaceted promises.

We know Salesforce committed to building new Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8 apps . But beyond that, some of Salesforce's claims, especially around its cloud partnership with Microsoft were rather... fluffy.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has been trumpeting that Salesforce's ExactTarget is "embedded within Office 365." But what does that really mean?

ExactTarget is not something Office 365 or Salesforce customers see. It's not a "customer-facing feature," a Microsoft spokesperson conceded earlier this year when I asked for more details. Instead, Microsoft uses ExactTarget to market Office 365. And, in exchange, Salesforce has committed to use more SQL Server internally to power its ExactTarget service. It also is using Azure for ExactTarget for development and test. It's basically a tit-for-tat situation.

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Maybe there will be some new revelations next week around Salesforce taking advantage of Microsoft's Office 365 application programming interface (API). Given the high-level Office 365-Salesforce interoperability talk back in May , this could be on the docket. If so, that would be a big deal.

Nadella said this week he considers the Office API and its extensions Microsoft's most strategic API . And Microsoft is in the midst of a worldwide roadshow where it is showing off how developers can use different Microsoft and non-Microsoft development tools and languages to write new Office-centric applications.

It's interesting that Microsoft still hasn't announced any kind of beefed up partnership with Red Hat, even though there have been recent rumblings that the pair might finally be ready to announce Red Hat Linux will become one of the handful of Linux distributions available in a virtual machine on Azure. Currently, the Linux distributions Microsoft supports on Azure include Ubuntu, CentOS, Oracle Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise and openSUSE.

I've heard from some of my contacts that it's Red Hat putting the brakes on Microsoft overtures to add Red Hat Linux to the list. I've heard from others that it's Microsoft holding things up.

"While we can imagine that a partnership, which respects each party’s business model and open source, could be possible for Red Hat technologies on Azure, we do not comment on market rumors," a Red Hat spokesperson told me when I asked about these rumblings. The spokesperson added "We note that Red Hat already has partnering arrangements of substance with Microsoft — certifying and supporting Red Hat Enterprise Linux running on Hyper-V, and Windows Server running on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization."

Don't get me wrong: It's refreshing to see Microsoft and other vendors behave in ways that could and should benefit their joint customers. It doesn't make for as many fun headlines, but it's better for users. But it's also important to separate real impact from image in assessing new alliances and partnerships.

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